Jon Lasser Talks with Roger

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With his daughter Sage Foster-Lasser and illustrator Christopher Lyles, school psychologist Jon Lasser has now published three picture books about young Kiko and her acquisition of interpersonal and emotional wellness. We could all use some of that right now, mais oui? Below we talk about the latest book in the series, Grow Kind.

Roger Sutton: We are all getting stretched for kindness this month. Jon, what do you think?

Jon Lasser: There are many challenges right now. We’re anxious; there’s a lot of uncertainty. Many of us are in close quarters with people with whom we don’t usually spend this much time. There are a lot of demands on us, and maybe a greater need for kindness and patience right now.

RS: I was reading an op-ed today in which the journalist cheekily opined that she had stopped thinking of her children as her children, but as her coworkers.

JL: It probably does prompt a lot of caregivers to reevaluate their relationships with children, practicing tolerance and patience. Maybe there’s an opportunity for a silver lining, to get to know children better and understand them better.

RS: How would you see parents using Grow Kind, now, at home? Do you see a place for it in particular?

JL: I do. Parents are really strapped, trying to figure out how to meet all the needs of their children, including their learning needs since they’re not in school. And books are such a great vehicle, because they’re accessible — they’re a bridge between adults and kids. Reading books is something parents can do with their children to provide some structure, but it also presents the opportunity to transmit values — and kindness is one of those values. So when parents sit down and read Grow Kind with their kids, it’s an opportunity for connection, and also an opportunity to talk about how to be kind to each other and to ourselves.

RS: It’s tough, too, because while a parent can hug their own child or their spouse or whoever else lives in the house with them, otherwise we’re telling people to stay away from each other. How do we connect in other ways?

JL: It’s important for kids to know that there are lots of ways to be kind at a distance: calling a grandparent on the phone would be one way of connecting and expressing kindness, to say “I’m thinking of you.” I’m a psychologist, and one of my books for adults is about screen time. It’s called Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World. I’m not anti-technology, but I do believe that kids spend too much time in front of screens. Not all of that time is the same. Some of it is creative. Some of it is more passive, and the quality of the media may not be great. But online communication with family members who are far away, particularly now when we don’t have physical access to them, is so valuable. That’s one of the things I encourage parents to consider if they’re putting limits on screen time. Don’t limit contact with loved ones.

RS: Values education is big right now. We see more and more children’s books and school curriculum units devoted to it. I know it’s a big question, but can we teach people to be kind?

JL: I certainly think we can. The challenge in writing children’s books to accomplish that goal is striking a balance between literature and something that’s didactic and teach-y or preachy. Grow Kind is the third book in a series, after Grow Happy and Grow Grateful. What we’re trying to accomplish is to provide picture books that are engaging, but also transmitting values. And it can be done. We know from decades of psychological research that we learn from each other, not just how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but also how to be with each other, how to value each other, and how to reciprocate. So we certainly can teach kindness. The primary teacher is an adult, whether it’s a parent or caregiver, grandparent, teacher, who’s modeling kindness. That’s the big test now, as we’re confined to homes: how to show children kindness. It can be done through playing games; it could be done through sharing. Right now we have limited resources, like toilet paper and grocery items, so we can model how to manage those deprivations kindly. But it can also be done through books, because children identify with characters in picture books. They think about the relationships between characters. And when they see examples of kindness, they’re likely to emulate that.

RS: Do you think anything about kindness is hardwired into us or is it something you have to learn?

JL: Anything we say about that is conjecture, because we’ll never know for sure. There’s good reason to believe that we evolved some behavioral patterns that are the glue of society. That it pays to be kind — it’s good for us. That it’s hard to live in isolation. Solitary confinement is one of the most awful punishments, because we need each other. We need to be able to connect. I do believe that’s part of who we are. You’re asking, scientifically, is that the case? We think so. It’d be hard to prove definitively. But we know that infants need connection to their caregivers, and when they’re deprived of that, they have a lot of problems; attachment disorder is a serious issue. Part of my work as a psychologist is with parents and children. Often, the parent will bring the kid in and say, “Fix my kid. My kid has these problems.” And a lot of the work is actually with the parent-child relationship. I really enjoy working with parents as well, teaching them how to be more responsive to their kids’ needs. Most parents don’t take a course in developmental psychology, so they don’t necessarily understand what’s typical of a five-year-old or their developmental needs. I think of it in terms of tasks. Children need to develop motor skills and language skills. They need to develop literacy. But they also need to develop social and emotional skills: how to recognize their own feelings and the feelings of others, how to regulate those feelings, how to see others’ perspectives. In this picture-book series, we always try to incorporate a little bit of perspective-taking. For example, in Grow Kind, the main character is eager to wake her older sister up, and her mom says, “Be kind to Annie and let her rest. Teenagers need a lot of sleep.” That’s perspective-taking woven into the narrative.

RS: We can’t divide actions into kind actions and unkind actions. So much of it is situational.

JL: Yes, situational or context-specific.

RS: Right, because wanting to engage your big sister in your activities is in itself a kind thing. But then learning when that’s appropriate and when it’s not, that’s a subcategory under kindness.

JL: It certainly is. Just like if you’re at a cocktail party, and you’re eager to share something with your friend, but you have to read the situation and see, “Oh, my friend is talking to someone else. I have to wait my turn before diving in and talking.” These are nuanced details of social interaction that are, frankly, hard to teach.

RS: And all of those interactions are so bound up with many different motivations and needs of the people involved. Handing someone a flower that you picked for them could be kind; it could also be manipulative. Or both. I’m curious — how do humans’ brains develop so they can read about Kiko and Annie in this book, for example, and then generalize to something they can use in their own life?

JL: That’s a great question. I really don’t know the answer, but we do know that it works. We know that that process happens. Anecdotally, I hear from parents — “We read the book, and the next day, my daughter asked, ‘Can we make a garden in our yard?’” There’s an internalization of the content, and it seems to persist over time, which is incredible, too. Because you can imagine immediately finishing a book and saying, “Now I want to make a garden.” But the fact that the story was being processed overnight and then the next day the reader wants to make a garden — that part is really remarkable. Ultimately, this is ink on paper. These characters aren’t people, they are depictions. Somehow, a child reader is taking in this story and looking at these images, and then something is happening cognitively in which those images become alive and real in the child’s mind. Of course storytelling predates the printed page. Oral traditions, to me, are how we make sense of the world. Some of my best learning experiences were sitting in classrooms where a teacher was telling a story. When history is told as a story, it comes alive. I think that we may be wired to make sense of our world through narrative.

RS: I know that your texts are careful about attending to readers’ psychological needs. Do you have any input into the illustrations in that regard?

JL: We love our illustrator, Christopher Lyles — he has done all of the books in the series. With Grow Happy, in his first sketches, Kiko’s garden looked more like a farm. It was massive. We had imagined a small child with a small garden. So we gave the feedback to the publisher, they gave it to Chris, and it was a back-and-forth like that. Even so, we have so much confidence and trust in Chris, we leave a lot of those decisions to him. Sometimes the pictures surprise and delight us in ways that we never expected.

RS: I want to say for our readers here that the “we” that Jon is referring to is not the imperial or editorial we. He in fact writes these books with his daughter. How did that come about?

JL: We started when she was in high school; she’s twenty-two now. Initially, I had this idea of gardening as a metaphor for cultivating happiness, without necessarily thinking of it as a children’s picture book. My daughter has always had an interest in psychology (she later majored in it in college) and she loves to write. I asked if she would be interested in a collaborative project, and she said, “Sure, I’m game.” Over time, that vague concept became the idea for a picture book. Like many first-time picture book authors, we submitted it everywhere and got rejected everywhere, but Magination was willing to work with us on revising, and we’re grateful that they ultimately published Grow Happy. Sage is a great writing partner. She comes up with creative and thoughtful ideas, and has a good sense of young readers and their perspective. She also helps out a lot in terms of the pacing. I read to her so much when she was a kid, and she knows picture books really well. We do break some of the “rules” in our books. People will say, “Use really small words for this four-to-eight-year-old age group.” We build in emotional vocabulary that’s a little bit above that level to bring kids up. We think that developing a vocabulary of emotion is helpful for that kind of growth. So we talk about frustrating situations — not the kind of thing you might hear a four-year-old say until they’ve been read the book. And then they might be able to say “I’m having a frustrating time."

RS: They have a new word.

JL: Look, you hear about kids that know all the names of the dinosaurs. Kids have an ear for language. We should take advantage of that and not just give them dinosaur names, but also words for feelings.

RS: It’s certainly important to have words for feelings, and the more you introduce them to children, the happier we’re all going to be.

JL: All picture books, I think, should be read interactively. Parents and teachers often do this intuitively, pausing and asking questions. But it’s even more important for books that aim to transmit values. We always end our books with a question, and at the end of Grow Kind it’s: “How do you grow kind?” Because the book is a starting point; it’s not an end point. I’d like children to know that after reading about a kid who chooses kindness in varied ways — now it’s your turn. We’re handing the baton to the reader. How do you grow kind? Are there ways you’ve done it in the past, or ways you’d like to do it in the future? There’s an interactive call to action. We want them to internalize these ideas and put them into action out in the real world.

RS: "Go out and do something kind, young child."

JL: Yes, or in this case, at home, while we’re quarantined.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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